Bangkok: A Cultural and Literary History

Bangkok: A Cultural and Literary History

Maryvelma O’Neil’s 2008-published Bangkok: A Cultural and Literary History is an eclectic, erudite and elegant glide through the history of Thailand, with a focus on its modern capital, Bangkok.

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Whether you’re visiting the kingdom for the first time, or you are an old Bangkok hand wanting to enjoy some of the finer anecdotes and interesting historical tidbits related to the city, this is a fine read, and an excellent companion to any nuts and bolts guide.

We should disclose that the author is an old friend of ours, whom we met when living in Bangkok. MV, as we know her, gave us a “garland” thank you in the acknowledgements. Right back at you, MV, for a sterling, informative book that we still refer to and recommend to friends even almost a decade after it was published.

O’Neil (as we must formally refer to her) begins with a potted history of how Bangkok came to be founded as the capital in 1782, shifting from Ayutthaya further north after its 1767 fall to the Burmese (and Sukhothai before that). If you know Bangkok today, it’s a fascinating insight to how the city evolved:

“For almost half a century after its founding the right to reside on land was granted by the king almost exclusively to nobles of Buddhist monks. There were two exceptions: the Portuguese (who had long provided guns and mercenaries) were allowed to settle around Santa Cruz church in Thonburi, and the Chinese had a settlement in Sampheng. Descendants of refugees and war captives gradually created amphibious enclaves. A specialised craft or a trading base linked these communities to the city’s economy. A few of the most commercially successfully moved inland—the Cham refugees of Ban Krua who revitalised the silk trade (read more in The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War ), and Makassar Muslims from Indonesia who settles in the Makasan area near the present-day Indra Regent Hotel. Sikhs congregates in the Pratunam area.”

The king ruled the city by edict, O’Neil writes: “These were proclaimed By Royal Command, Reverberating like the Roar of a Lion from the Grand Palace: Concerning People Getting Drunk at the New Year Celebration, Advice on the Inelegant Practice of Throwing Dead Animals into the Waterway and other memorable civic proclamations.”

Surprising fact follows surprising fact: Alexander MacDonald, an American attached to the Office of Strategic Security, loaned the gun that was responsible for the death of young Prince Ananda (and therefore the rise to the throne of King Bhumibol Adulyadej); the same MacDonald went on to found The Bangkok Post newspaper.

The book proper begins in Part One with a focus on the royal side of Bangkok, starting with a look at the fates of the former capitals, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. A chapter on The Grand Palace is so thorough you could almost be tempted to miss the crowds and just enjoy O’Neil’s descriptions instead (don’t, you should still go—just use this as your guide!). The River of Kings, or the Chao Phraya, has a dedicated chapter, with various descriptions of enthralled visitors describing its appearance throughout the centuries, from obscure British naval men, to Joseph Conrad, to Yukio Mishima. (Interesting fact: The water hyacinth you see all along the river was imported from Indonesia in 1872 by one of the consorts of King Rama V.) The klongs of Thonburi are then explored, followed by royal Rajdamnern Avenue, with a look at the historical events that have centred here such as the 1992 uprising at the Democracy Monument.

Part Two shifts the focus to temples. Wat Arun, Wat Pho, Wat Saket and the Golden Mount and the Erawan Shrine are explored. Part Three explores the merchant side of the city: Sampeng Lane, New Road, migrants, and the Oriental Hotel. And Part Four looks at art and food.

This is no disjointed pastiche of clips and quotes from historical characters (as is the style of less polished, but still interesting, Tales of Old Bangkok: Rich Stories from the Land of the White Elephant), but a smoothly narrated tale calling on the expertise of well known, and lesser well known, literary figures, observers and explorers through the centuries. O’Neil’s love of the city shines from these pages, with her humour adding a welcome touch. The true history fan will unearth a treasury of other books to track down on Thailand through the further reading list, too.

If you are daunted by the thought of visiting Bangkok, this book makes for a great read ahead of time. Armed with so much historical knowledge, you’ll have the confidence needed to jump on a commuter boat chugging along the Chao Phraya, sip on a cocktail at the Oriental and elbow your way through the crowds of Sampeng Lane. Pack a guidebook, and pack Bangkok: A Cultural and Literary History, and you’ll be miles ahead of other travellers in understanding something of this alluring, crazy town.

Buy online: Amazon | Book Depository |



108 results found

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days
Burmese Days

By George Orwell

Finding George Orwell
Finding George Orwell

By Emma Larkin

Miss Burma
Miss Burma

By Charmaine Craig

The Glass Palace
The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh

The Trouser People
The Trouser People

By Andrew Marshall

Cambodia

Dogs at the Perimeter
Dogs at the Perimeter

By Madeleine Thien

Holiday in Cambodia
Holiday in Cambodia

By Laura Jean McKay

Hun Sen’s Cambodia
Hun Sen’s Cambodia

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Hunters in the Dark
Hunters in the Dark

By Lawrence Osborne

King Norodom's Head
King Norodom's Head

By Steven W. Boswell

River of Time
River of Time

By Jon Swain

The Gate
The Gate

By Francoise Bizot

Indonesia

A House in Bali
A House in Bali

By Colin McPhee

Beauty is a Wound
Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

Black Water
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Home
Home

By Leila S. Chudori

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In the Time of Madness

By Richard Lloyd Parry

Indonesia Etc.
Indonesia Etc.

By Elizabeth Pisani

On the Java Ridge
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By Jock Serong

Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

By Lawrence Blair

The Malay Archipelago
The Malay Archipelago

By Alfred Russel Wallace

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By Andrea Hirata

The Year of Living Dangerously
The Year of Living Dangerously

By Christopher J. Koch

This Earth of Mankind
This Earth of Mankind

By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano

By Cameron Forbes

Laos

Malaysia

Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

From Third World to First
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If I Could Tell You
If I Could Tell You

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State of Emergency
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The Tower
The Tower

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Thailand

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A Tiger in Eden

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Bangkok Found

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Hothouse Flower

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Jasmine Nights
Jasmine Nights

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Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

By Carol Hollinger

Many Lives
Many Lives

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Sightseeing
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By Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Thai Street Food
Thai Street Food

By David Thompson

The Beach
The Beach

By Alex Garland

The Drinking Food of Thailand
The Drinking Food of Thailand

By Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan

The Sad Part Was
The Sad Part Was

By Prabda Yoon

The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith

Vietnam

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The Lover
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The Sorrow of War
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